Article by Dan Arel
- Do people who claim to have a strong understanding of science challenge their views?
- Do people who claim religious affiliation read scientific studies that oppose their worldview?
S. Mo Jang of the University of Michigan set out to answer such questions. He recently published findings in Science Communication.
In his paper, “Seeking Congruency or Incongruency Online? Examining Selective Exposure to Four Controversial Science Issues,” Jang looked at which science-related news stories people chose to read online: either news that is consistent with their views, or news that challenged them.
238 adults from the United States took part in this study. Each participant was then asked their feelings on a six-point scale (1=strong disagree, 6=strongly agree) on the following subjects:
Stem cell research
Genetically Modified Foods (GM)
The questions were worded in ways such as “I think humans evolved from earlier species of animals”. The participants were also surveyed for other factors such as political affiliation (28 percent Republican, 30 percent Democrat, 42 percent independent), religiosity (how religious they saw themselves), attention to science stories from mass media outlets, and then their perceived scientific knowledge versus their actual scientific knowledge (this was done via a simple true/false test).
Each participant was then given time to explore a “science news” site that displayed 12 different articles on the subjects mentioned above (the participants did not know this was a fake news site). Three articles were used for each subject: one article that validated (or affirmed the subject), one that opposed it, and lastly one neutral article.
What were the findings?
The findings are surprising in some ways. The general thought would be that confirmation bias would win out in the end. That was wrong, however.
34.6% of articles read were consistent with the participant’s views.
23.6% were neutral to the participant’s views.
48.1% were oppositional to the participant’s views.
This study showed that over half the participants looked at views outside of their comfort zone. Furthermore, those who thought they knew a lot about a specific scientific subject were less likely to read an oppositional article than someone who actually did understand a specific scientific subject.
When it came to religion, those who claimed religious beliefs and did not follow mass media science coverage were far more likely to avoid any article that was oppositional to their views. However, if their mass media outlet viewing was high, they were actually more likely to seek out oppositional sources. Interesting, however, is that neither finding regarding the religious was as pronounced as that for those with a perceived scientific knowledge.
So what does this mean?
Here’s what I think: Non-scientists who read and study science, especially through news and media, need to do a better job reading about opposing views.
If you are anti-genetically-modified foods, you need to seek out “pro”-genetically-modified food studies. If you accept global warming, you should understand the opposition and read any findings published that would challenge your view.
One must attempt to overcome the “know it all” effect and realize that anyone – even yourself – can be wrong about something you “know” is so right.
It has been said that the best way to oppose something is to understand it better than its proponents. One should have the ability to argue their opposition’s side of the matter better than the opposition. The true path to knowledge comes from understanding a subject on both is merit and its faults (if only even perceived faults by the opposition).
This same reasoning can be applied outside of science as well, in everyday life. To truly understand why you may be against someone’s worldview or even political ideology, correctly understand what it is they oppose. Your perceived knowledge is not enough, and an air of arrogance can do you much more harm than good. It is a great disservice to oneself to assume you know it all.
- “Seeking Congruency or Incongruency Online? Examining Selective Exposure to Four Controversial Science Issues,” Science Communication, online Sept. 16, 2013, S. Mo Jang. DOI: 10.1177/1075547013502733